Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
All the classical spiritual traditions of humankind are confronted by the simple but undeniable fact that we are living at a critical time when the future of human life on earth is in serious jeopardy. Dark clouds have gathered on the horizon, and we can see them in every direction. One dark cloud is the ever-widening inequality in wealth between the rich and the poor—the inequality that is driven by a neoliberal economic system that funnels more and more of the world’s wealth into the hands of a small powerful elite, who manipulate governments and international law for their own advantage. Another dark cloud is the volatile financial system, which treats the world’s vital resources such as food, water, and land as objects of financial speculation, leaving millions of people around the world hungry, landless, and homeless, burdened with oppressive debt. Still another is the persistence of wars: regional wars that are seemingly interminable and generate new terrorist groups almost as soon as the older ones bite the dust; the specter of all-out nuclear war just the press of a button away. And still another cloud takes the form of the all-seeing surveillance state, which uses the new electronic technologies to snoop into every aspect of our private lives.
Perhaps the darkest cloud of all is climate change, which has been transforming the natural environment in ways that imperil the future of human civilization. The accelerating changes to the planet’s climate, and the rapid depletion of our natural resources such as water, soil, and food, call not only for pragmatic remedies but also for a robust moral response. Our moral responsibility now extends beyond the narrow confines of our national borders to people throughout the world. In every continent people are already being bludgeoned by the impact of a warmer, stranger, more violent planet. Indeed, those who face the harshest consequences of climate change are the people least responsible for it: the simple farmers and villagers of of southern Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. The impacts of climate disruption occurring now extend down the line to future generations, who will have to inherit the legacy of planetary devastation that we leave behind. Our responsibility also extends to non-human beings, to the countless other species that face the loss of their natural habitats and the threat of imminent extinction.
These ominous currents should rouse us to seek a new understanding of the spiritual path, one that can meet the need of humanity at the present critical time. While the scriptures of the spiritual traditions that have come down from the past speak about such matters as poverty, war, violence, and social injustice, they did not foresee how these evils would expand to the point where they threaten to engulf the entire human race. Yet that is precisely where we find ourselves today. This convergence of interrelated crises should impel us, as spiritual practitioners, to look back into our traditions for insights and values that can guide us in our quest for effective solutions. But we also have to recognize that none of our traditions, as they have come to us, have addressed these momentous challenges in ways that explicitly equip us to deal with them. It is thus necessary for us to re-envision the crucial insights of our traditions, to draw out from them the contours of a new paradigm securely rooted in our tradition but aligned with the most pressing needs of our time.
In stepping up to this task, right attitudes and effective action must be joined with each other and guided by far-seeing vision. As Buddhists, we’re told to cultivate compassion to all sentient beings, above all to our fellow human beings. But the supreme expression of compassion today must be in action—in acting courageously and vigorously to protect the poor and needy, to keep the earth viable for present and future generations, to protect those being crushed by tyrannical regimes and exploited by dominant elites, and also to protect the rich biodiversity of the planet. If it is to be truly worth its salt, karuna must manifest in karana, compassion must be expressed in compassionate action, in deeds that deliver others from pervasive structures of suffering, programs that can tackle the deep systemic roots of our present drive toward planetary self-immolation.
The great moral challenge of our time, as I see it, is to create a world that works for everyone, a world in which war and violence have finally been abolished; in which poverty has been replaced by shared abundance; in which all can enjoy the basic material supports of a healthy life—food, clothing, housing, and medical care. We need to ensure that everyone can achieve an adequate level of education and freely pursue the goals that give their lives value and purpose. Above all, we must work to create a world in which all people dwell in peace and harmony with one another and with the natural environment. These may appear to be utopian goals, but without defining our goals it will be impossible to design the policies needed to create the kind of world toward which we aspire.
The task of creating a just, sustainable, and harmonious world is essentially a moral challenge. Policy decisions require a polestar by which they should be guided; otherwise they will be merely subservient to dominant interests. For this reason, such decisions must be shaped by the ethical imperatives of the great world religions. This is a task that calls for interfaith cooperation and collaboration. It should bring religious leaders together in a spirit of mutual friendship, in a spirit of shared concern, to determine the ethical values that should mold policy decisions in the spheres of healthcare, social justice, economic policy, climate policy, and international relations.
It is often also necessary for spiritual leaders to make a commitment to speak the truth, the unvarnished truth, to speak truth to power. This involves courage and even risk, for if there is one thing those in power do not like, it is to hear the truth. Every day, distortion and disinformation reverberate through the media and ride the waves of cyberspace to justify aggressive militarism, economic exploitation, and attacks on social justice. Wealth controls the mainstream media, which bends over backwards to serve the interests of wealth. Yet in the chaos of political debates, people still trust religious and spiritual leaders. For this reason, it is those devoted to the spiritual path who must stand up as advocates for justice and peace, protect the vulnerable, and defend the climate from the joint assault of the fossil fuel corporations, the war machine, and their agents in the political establishment.
I see in the classical spiritual quest two kinds of movement leading in different directions. One is a movement upward, leading from the mundane world, with its pain and tribulations, to a supreme state, condition, or reality that transcends the limitations of the world. In Buddhism, we express this as the movement from ignorance to enlightenment, from suffering to ultimate bliss, from defilement to purity, from the cycle of birth and death to nirvana. The other movement in the spiritual quest goes downward: from the height of wisdom and liberation down into the dust of everyday life. Traditional expressions of the spiritual path emphasize the upward movement. Thus they tend to lead away from ordinary life in the human world toward a distinctive lifestyle aimed at transcendence of the world. The point toward renunciation, seclusion, and contemplation in solitude as the prerequisites of highest realization.
I believe that today we must put a fresh and revitalized emphasis on the downward movement of the spiritual path. This movement might be described as a movement of love guided by wisdom, even as a movement of grace. From this point of view the aim of spiritual practice is not only to escape the bondage of the world but also to acquire the wisdom and compassion, the patience, power, and equanimity, needed to struggle vigilantly to create a just world governed by moral ideals, a world in which violence and exploitation are reduced if not fully eradicated. Monastics and contemplatives must be part of this movement, using their deep insights and impartial compassion to give shape to the values and lifestyles that can take us, collectively, beyond the destructive turmoil created by unrestrained greed, anger, and delusion.
Like the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, we must listen to the cries of the world. Cries of pain and suffering arise on all sides: from garment workers in Bangladesh and electronics workers in China and debt-driven farmers in India; from famine stricken migrants in East Africa and unemployed youth in Spain; from women and children being crushed by the horrors of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Somalia—people with parents, children, and friends who daily fear for their lives. We must listen to the cries of children in northwest Pakistan who can’t sleep from fear of drones, of immigrants in the U.S. threatened with deportation, of refugees who have fled their homelands in search of safety elsewhere, of black men and women who can’t walk down the street or drive down the avenue without a gnawing fear that this walk or drive might be their last. Cries also arise from our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, brutally mistreated by us, and even from the earth itself, which groans beneath the weight of human greed, arrogance, and ignorance.
What we need with utmost urgency is a style of spirituality that can merge the deep insights and sublime equanimity of the contemplative path with a relentless commitment to ameliorative action. I call the attitude we need “conscientious compassion,” a moral commitment driven by conscience and spurred by a deep identification with the pain of the world. Conscientious compassion isn’t sentimental compassion, nor is it compassion merely as a sublime emotion developed in the silence of the meditation hall. Rather, it’s a fierce compassion that urges us to act on behalf of the poor, on behalf of those exploited and victimized, on behalf of those whose humanity is mocked and marginalized. It urges us to strive for social and economic justice based on a sense of human equality and recognition of the intrinsic dignity of every person.
In my understanding, what lies at the root of all our multiple crises—whether political, social, economic, or ecological—is the dominance of unquestioned ideologies that encourage us to treat other people and the natural world as means to our private ends. These ideologies celebrate the unrestrained pursuit of narrow self-interest rooted in greed and the ambition to dominate others. They encourage ruthless competition, self-promotion, and the quest for quick financial gain, entirely based on the flawed belief that the pursuit of self-interest advances the good of all. In reality, however, letting our greed control us serves neither our own good nor the good of others. To the contrary, it leads us away from our real well-being and jeopardizes our common future.
Greed pits each person against all others, and it pits impersonal corporations against the natural systems that support life on earth. It turns people into commodities, to be expoited and used for the benefits they can yield to their employers, and then discarded like plastic bottles when they are no longer useful. But people cannot be discarded like empty bottles. They should be treated with kindness and respect, in the same way we would want others to treat us.
To reverse course, what we need with utmost urgency, in my view, is a fresh recognition of the intrinsic worth of the human person and respect for the integrity of the biosphere. Above all, we must learn to see other human beings as ends in themselves and not merely as means to the satisfaction of our individual desires. This task demands that respect for the person be extended to every human life. We have to see that all human beings deserve the chance to live in dignity, that all are entitled to a meaningful life. We cannot limit this recognition to ourselves individually, nor to those who share our ethnic identity, religion, or nationality. To be true to the moral good, we have to acknowledge that every human being—regardless of race, nationality, religion, language, gender, or sexual orientation—shares with us a common humanity, and as such merits our full respect and concern.
To recognize that every human being possesses intrinsic dignity is to accept two moral values as having primary claims on us. These two values are justice and love—in terms of classical Buddhism, we might call them dharma and metta. The two rest on different premises but both are equally necessary to protect humankind from a plunge into global catastrophe. The two work in harmony, each supplying what the other lacks. We must therefore give equal weight to both and make them the decisive factors in our efforts to change the world.
The need for justice—whether legal, social, or economic justice—proceeds from the premise that each individual person possesses intrinsic worth. When we carefully consider this premise, we find that it really means that all human beings are inherently equal. It means that all other people are as valuable as I am, that I am not “someone special” except in the sense that everyone else is “someone special.” The premise of equality implies that no one is inherently entitled to privileges and perks that are to be denied to others. The homeless immigrant sleeping in the park, the Chinese girl working long hours in the computer factory, the Indian farmer plowing his small field, the Iraqi merchant in the Baghdad market, even the Taliban warrior: all have the same claim to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that I have. The call for justice entails that all human beings be treated equally before the law. It entails that all are entitled to sufficient food, medical care, an education, and the freedom to express their thoughts. And it entails that all have the right to help shape the political institutions, policies, and laws under which they live.
The moral ideal of justice speaks to us in an impersonal voice that sometimes seems cold and unfeeling. Therefore, if the quest for the ethical good is to spring from the deepest springs of the human spirit, justice must be united with another value that confers warmth and spiritual abundance on the ethical life. This other value is love. Love means that we cherish other people as much as we cherish ourselves. It means that we regard other human beings, even those unknown to us, with affection and appreciation, as if they were our parents, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters. From the Buddhist perspective, love reaches even beyond the limits of the human and asks us to extend to all sentient beings a wish for their well-being and a refusal to inflict on them any unnecessary suffering. Love means that we cherish all other people and all sentient beings, and act to ensure their welfare. Through love we are moved to protect them from harm and promote their genuine welfare and happiness.
While charity and humanitarian service may help to correct some of the most blatant violations of the moral ideal, on their own they are insufficient. The dangers that confront us have deep social and economic roots and thus the final solution must be social and economic transformation. It is said, for example, that to end global hunger would require an annual investment of perhaps $40 billion. This might sound like a lot of money, but when we realize that the U.S. government spends some $800 billion dollars a year on the military, it’s clear that $40 billion is a relatively small amount. Lack of money is not the obstacle. The obstacle is the mentality that sees money as more important than people. To eliminate global hunger and other social inequities will require massive changes in the dominant social and economic systems—away from those that benefit a privileged and powerful few to new systems that can bring forth a genuine commonwealth in which we can all participate.
There are hundreds of ways to translate our ideals of love, justice, and compassion into action, and we each have to find our own calling. By looking within and finding where one’s heart breaks open, you will hear your call into the world of sacred action. You need not worry that you don’t have the skills or talents. My belief is that the age of the “giants” who can manage everything on their own is over. One aspect of our work today is to unite our personal talents with others in a shared endeavor rooted in care for the earth and compassion for people everywhere. By acting together, we can accomplish great things. What we need most is the trust that, if we take the initiative to act, the deep spiritual forces of the universe will come forward to help us.
What we call this force does not matter. We can call it the Dharma, the sustaining power of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas; theists would call it God or divine grace. The name does not matter; what is essential is to have the faith that behind us there is a transcendent power working on the side of love, compassion, peace, and justice, working against the forces of hatred, violence, and domination. If we trust it, this power will be there in the background silently supporting us, bringing us into contact with the right people and opening up unexpected opportunities to serve. What is called for is a deep fountain of compassion, born of contemplation, meditation, and prayer, and a strong intention to devote our efforts to the service of others. It’s been my experience that once we bring these factors together, the rest will unfold almost miraculously.